8 Traits a Negative Character Arc Absolutely Must Have
Do you dream of writing a disturbingly compelling negative character arc?
One of those stories where a good person breaks bad or turns to the Dark Side or kills their father and marries their mother…
…and you kind of understand how it happened?
Or maybe you just want to slip a negative character arc into a subplot where someone’s downfall can trip up a protagonist but not define the entire story.
Whether a negative character arc belongs to a side character or protagonist, this type of journey packs a mighty punch.
Negative character arcs invite us to examine the consequences of insecurity or vengefulness. They offer more empathetic explanations for the “villains” in our world. Also—philosophizing aside—they’re really fun to read.
Of course, that’s assuming they’re written well.
See, every negative character arc should have eight key traits. These traits help you nail both the tragedy and chilling relatability of a character’s downfall.
I’ll explain each of these eight traits in detail. But first, let’s clarify what a negative character arc is.
What is a Negative Character Arc?
A character arc is the transformative journey a single character takes over the course of a story. There are three main types of character arc:
- Positive character arc – The character changes for the better and improves their situation as a result.
- Flat character arc – The character doesn’t evolve at all. You see this a lot in mystery, thriller, and adventure series that follow one unchanging sleuth or hero.
- Negative character arc – The character changes for the worse. This transformation usually takes a toll on their world and those around them, as well.
One important thing to understand is that all character arcs—even most flat character arcs—play around with the Truth and the Lie.
The Lie is a flawed belief that a character holds as truth. This philosophy is rooted in their past trauma (the Ghost) and acts as a tool for avoiding repeat trauma.
So let’s say your character was abandoned at an orphanage in their childhood. Their Lie might be something like, “I can’t depend on anyone but myself.” This belief keeps them safe from abandonment, because now they’re not counting on anybody in the first place.
It’s not true. People need each other, we all thrive on mutual support, and reliable people do exist. That’s the Truth.
In a positive character arc, our orphan’s journey would eventually lead them to the Truth and they’d start letting people in. (Yay!)
But in a negative character arc, the journey plays out differently.
Three Types of Negative Character Arcs
The balance between Truth and Lie in your story will depend on what kind of negative character arc you’re crafting. There are three types.
In this arc, the character starts the story believing the Lie and learns the Truth as the story goes on. What makes this different from a positive arc is this ugly li’l twist:
The Truth is tragic. It’s way worse than the Lie.
Imagine that the story of your orphan character starts with their life before abandonment. They believe they can depend on their parents, and in this context, that’s the Lie. Their abandonment reveals the Truth: they can only depend on themselves.
Now they’ll grow up to be a supervillain. Or Batman. It could go either way.
Your character begins with the Lie, is presented with the Truth, and rejects the Truth in favor of an even more destructive Lie.
Let’s say your orphan believes they can’t depend on anyone but themselves. Then they meet a mentor who seems to genuinely care about them. They consider embracing the Truth until the mentor lets them down.
The mentor’s failure may be a matter of misunderstanding, but the pain of it is terrifyingly familiar. Your orphan doubles down, convinced every “relationship” is just a game of manipulation. They decide to be the manipulator from here on out.
In this negative character arc, your character knows the Truth from the very beginning. It’s the Lie that disrupts their life.
Maybe your character actually has positive relationships. They know they can depend on the right people. But then they learn that manipulating people can be an easy way to get what you want. They try it. They like it.
So they cling to any evidence they can find to support the Lie that this is how the world works—you have to be in it for yourself if you’re going to survive.
Of course, you have to justify your character’s fall into corruption. This style of storytelling is most devastating when it makes sense.
And to make it make sense, you need these eight key elements.
1. A Powerful Lie
Or a powerful Truth if you’re writing a disillusionment arc. Either way, the belief that shoves your character into a downward spiral should be crazy compelling.
A powerful Lie taps into your character’s deepest fears or greatest longing. It invites your character to entertain appealing ideas such as:
- I wouldn’t be worse than anybody else if I…
- I’d be totally justified in…
- Nothing matters, anyway, so I might as well…
- I deserve…
- They deserve…
- I should never put my heart on the line because…
Make sure you back up the Lie with compelling evidence, but also explore your character’s desire to believe the Lie. When your readers understand how the Lie makes your character feel safer or closer to their goals, they’ll understand why the story proceeds as it does.
For a powerful Truth, you’re going to need to give your character cold, hard proof. Often, this is a series of little Truth nuggets gradually growing in size until the Truth Bomb drops.
Your soon-to-be orphan is living their best life with their nomadic parents. In your character's eyes, it’s just free-spirited van life. But then there’s an unexpectedly frantic escape from a Walmart parking lot. Then that weird encounter with a police officer.
Eventually your character is full-on abandoned, suddenly making sense of the Truth that was there all along.
Ugh. This story is depressing. Why did I choose this example?
2. A Good Reason for Going Negative With This Character
Negative character arcs are chilling, thrilling, and make us think. From a storytelling perspective, that’s reason enough to want to write one.
But you have to make sure a negative character arc fits your story, too.
If the negative character arc belongs to your protagonist, the story will take a dark and pessimistic tone. If you’re writing anything that’s supposed to be a light and cozy read (a romance, for example), negative is not the way to go. At least not with your main character.
Also consider how a negative character arc will affect your theme. What do you want the reader to take away from the fact that this preschool teacher is now a wanted fugitive?
Juxtaposing positive and negative character arcs can be an effective way to highlight the theme of your novel. If your message is that “love conquers all,” you might give your protagonist a foil who self-protects with the Lie that love is for the weak and thus shrivels into a life of needless isolation.
3. A Believable Journey Into Darkness
It’s only fun to watch a good person turn rotten when we understand why it’s happening. Even better if we can sympathize with their destructive choices.
Here are a few tips for getting your reader on board with your character’s downward spiral.
Drop a few breadcrumbs early on. Is this character restless and unsettled? Concealing a quiet rage that occasionally surfaces? A bit too naive? Give your reader a glimpse of your character’s vulnerability to corruption or devastation.
Identify the fatal flaw that makes this person particularly susceptible to the allure of the Lie. Do they have a vengeful streak? An intense scarcity mindset? Are they a little more ambitious than the average bear?
Establish their motivation. In this story, are they desperate to survive? Aching for acknowledgement?
Give them a clear moral code. You might demonstrate early on that their moral code is a little flexible. Or maybe it’s unconventional, allowing them to justify egregious acts the rest of us recognize as objectively wrong.
But the really fun option is to show your readers where this character draws the line and then give them a good reason to cross it. Breaking Bad is a great example of this. Walt’s line keeps moving out of (perceived) necessity until there is no line anymore.
Sticking with that example:
Show what’s at stake. Walt gets into the meth business to pay for cancer treatment and ensure his family’s financial security. He commits his first murder because it’s a “kill or be killed” situation. Make sure your reader knows what your character stands to gain or lose with each decision.
Check out this article on writing sympathetic antagonists. Even if your negative character arc belongs to the protagonist, this resource has great tips for finding relatability in characters who do terrible things.
4. Ongoing Character Revelations
Over the course of a positive arc, we watch a character unearth hidden troves of bravery, resilience, and kindness within themselves. It’s what makes a positive arc so uplifting, encouraging us to consider what we might be capable of when pushed to the limit.
A negative arc presents the same question but with sinister organ music playing in the background. Rather than courage and compassion, the conflicts faced by your negative arc character might reveal profound fear, rage, or envy. Or, to put it another way: fear, fear, or fear.
You can also use the journey of a negative character arc to reveal expository information about your character.
In the case of a protagonist, you want to at least drop a few details about their backstory early on so your reader understands the choices they make. But it can be a powerful choice to withhold certain aspects of their history until the moment when those details can really pack a punch.
If your negative arc belongs to an antagonist or side character, you can withhold more information for longer. You might wait to unload sympathetic backstory in a moment of heightened tension for a surprising character twist.
Just make sure the withheld information feels believable when you dump it on the reader. Otherwise they’ll feel like you’re pulling a cheap trick.
5. Positive Character Traits
Your character’s fatal flaw runs the show in a negative character arc. But don’t let that flaw be their only defining feature.
A negative arc is most engaging when the reader is reminded that this corrupted character is someone they originally recognized as good… someone who still is good in certain respects.
Maybe this character would do anything for their family. Or perhaps they’re a really good friend in addition to being a drug lord. Black Panther’s Killmonger has dedicated his life to empowering the oppressed; he just happens to be a little too murdery about it.
6. A Plot Driven by the Negative Character Arc
This is especially important when the negative arc belongs to your protagonist. The events of the plot lure the protagonist closer to the Lie. Then the protagonist embraces the Lie, making bold and terrible choices that lead to new conflicts.
If it’s your antagonist who follows a negative character arc, their journey of horrifying transformation should also play an essential role in defining conflicts and raising the stakes.
As for side characters, the extent of their influence on the plot will depend largely on their proximity to the central conflict. If this person is, say, the sleuth’s partner in a mystery novel and is slipping into a secret life of crime, their actions will inevitably create new obstacles for the sleuth.
But if the negative arc belongs to the sleuth’s brother who has nothing to do with the case, the brother’s arc may serve to highlight a theme or further a subplot rather than the main plot.
7. An Ultimate Destination
I know “there has to be an ending” is basically Storytelling 101. But this little detail can fall through the cracks when we’re talking about negative character arcs.
See, in negative arcs, it’s usually the fall that’s thrilling. If I were to list my ten favorite scenes in Breaking Bad, none of them would be from the final episode.
Even so, this all has to lead somewhere. Imagine reading three hundred pages about a social worker becoming a crime lord only to reach an ending that’s like, “And so yeah. That’s it. She’s a crime lord now.”
Major letdown, right?
Show your reader how this negative character arc is life-imploding for someone. For that character, everyone around them, or both.
8. A Gradual Approach
Finally, let the descent happen gradually. Give your character a gentle shove down a slippery slope.
First, they shift the boundaries of their moral code one tiny inch under extenuating circumstances. Once they’ve done that, the next little shift doesn’t feel so awful. When there’s an opportunity for a third, bigger shift, they’ve already developed a new system of rationalization to make it feel okay.
Now, note that gradual doesn’t mean slow or boring. Each new step your character takes towards tragedy or corruption should be bigger than the step before. Let them get bolder and more reckless. Keep raising the stakes.
Just don’t allow them to morph from saint to sinner overnight. Remember, you’re trying to create a negative character arc that feels unsettlingly plausible.
Track Your Character’s Descent Into Madness
Now that you know all the must-have elements of a negative character arc, how do you actually apply these ideas to your story?
Well, if you could use more help designing the arc itself, check out this article on creating character arcs. For more guidance on centering your story around the baddie, check out this article on writing a villain protagonist.
You’ll also find additional tips for dreaming up complex characters and engaging storylines in Dabble’s free ebook, Let’s Write a Book.
In terms of actually planning your novel and tracking a negative character arc, I recommend using Dabble’s Plot Grid. Customizable columns allow you to plot out your character’s growth alongside each scene, like this:
If you don’t use Dabble, you can try this feature—and all Dabble’s Premium features—for free for fourteen days. Just click this link and don’t even think about touching your credit card.
Then get out there and start dreaming up some devastating arcs.
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